“… the best role of his career, not only sharing but sometimes stealing the spotlight from his super stellar colleague.” Paul Fonoroff on Chin Siu Ho, At the Hong Kong Movies, p. 353
In an interview on the Dragon Dynasty DVD release of Fist Of Legend (in which Chin Siu Ho co-starred with Jet Li) director Gordon Chan says that “Chin Siu Ho is one of the unluckiest guys in the film business”. He means that Chin should have been a bigger star than he was. I concur – what’s not to like about this man? He moves beautifully, having trained in martial arts from when he was a boy. His experience also includes training in the Madame Fan Fok Fa Chinese Opera school, 6 months at the Shaw Brothers studio stunt school, and working with Chang Cheh and Sammo Hung*. His acting is superb**. In Tai Chi Master, as Tian Bao, he moves from being cheekily humourous, in the first part of the film, to menacing with dashes of finely tuned melodrama in the later scenes. He has terrific on screen presence and is rather easy on the eye. This all makes him an effective foil to Jet Li in the role of Jun Bao, and his performance is one of the elements that make Tai Chi Master such a superb film.
The stories of Tian Bao and Jun Bao are central to the movie, and therefore both parts need to be played by performers who are equally matched. The characters meet and bond at Shaolin temple as boys, watch each other’s backs when they start taking on the world outside of the temple as youths, but then are wrenched apart by conflicting values. 2 things help the viewer to readily identify and define these 2 characters. One is the movement dynamic in the choreography. The other, with which this blog is concerned, is the comparisons we make between the 2 characters themselves.
In the opening scenes at Shaolin Temple we get to know that Tian Bao is cocky and ambitious. By comparison, the good natured and compliant Jun Bao is less certain of himself and quite happy to let Tian Bao take the lead. The script, direction and performance of these scenes establish these differences clearly, and the interaction between the characters reinforces them. Tian Bao comes across as being even more gorgeously cheeky in comparison to the more passive Jun Bao, who, in turn, comes across as an even bigger sweetie in stark contrast to Tian Bao’s arrogance.
After they leave Shaolin Temple, events force the twin warriors to make choices that mean that their life paths diverge. Both flounder – Tian Bao does so morally as his ruthless pursuit of career advancement leads him to act callously. Jun Bao does not actually do anything wrong, but he lacks direction and certainty, even agreeing to wash out toilets and the Taoist priest’s dirty undies. He seems to have no sense of boundaries and no defenses against the big bad world, and therefore Tian Bao’s eventual treachery brings his mental health undone.
Director Yuen Wu Ping handles this mid section of the film well, cutting between scenes showing Tian Bao’s devolvement into a heartless bastard and scenes showing Jun Bao lost in his madness. The extent of Jun Bao’s disorientation is extreme, and his bizarre behaviour leaves the viewer as to no doubt as to the seriousness of the damage that Tian Bao’s treachery has inflicted on Jun Bao’s burgeoning, but still under developed, sense of self. It is interesting therefore that Yuen chooses to invest the scenes depicting Jun Bao’s madness with a lot of slapstick humour. This humorous flavour is reinforced by having Yuen Cheung Yan as the crazy Taoist priest (a stock character that brings with him comedic conventions in kung fu films) to share Jun Bao’s scenes with him. Michelle Yeoh’s character, Qiu Xue, plays along with the comedy, but also evens it out by contributing some affecting moments via her genuine concern and compassion for Jun Bao. The humour of these scenes is necessary as a relief from the scenes showing Tian Bao’s story. These contain some of the cruelest violence in the movie. This is not gratuitous as Yuen does not let the violence drag on for longer than necessary. Through showing this brutality Yuen is allowing us to understand that Tian Bao’s moral choices are leading him to develop his instincts for cruelty and ruthlessness.
At the beginning of the film, Tian Bao’s character comes across as more positive than Jun Bao. We know he’s a naughty boy, but he is certain about what he wants and has the guts to go after it. We like Jun Bao because he is obviously much less selfish than Tian Bao. But he seems a more passive character, and someone whose personality is a little less definitely formed. The 2 actors do well in these scenes. Chin’s performance of Tian Bao is highly engaging – Tian Bao amuses and charms us even though we can see that he can be a wee bit of a bastard at times. Jet Li, in playing the less dynamic character in these early scenes, does well too. He invests Jun Bao with gentleness and some hesitancy, and nudges right up against the boundaries that separate weak from deferential, without ever letting Jun Bao tip over into becoming an aneamic sap. Li gives a sense of playing up to, or following the lead of, Chin Siu Ho in his portrayal of the more charismatic Tian Bao. In his book Kung Fu Cult Masters Leon Hunt says of Li as an actor “There is a deceptive stillness, even diffidence…” and talks about Li “…deferring to scene-stealing and more experienced performers” (p. 142). There is much of this judicious deferring happening in Li’s scenes with Chin in the first half of Tai Chi Master and it serves the film well. Throughout the movie, there is an excellent rapport between the 2 actors, and they respond to each other’s performances responsively.
By the end of the film Jun Bao, having discovered and mastered the principles behind Tai Chi, is the stronger and more anchored personality. Tian Bao’s morals have unraveled and he has become cruel and grasping as a result. Li subtly imbues Jun Bao with authority and a radiant presence in the final scenes. Chin’s character has become morally ugly, but he still engages his audience’s interest (if not their sympathy) by performing with energy and flair. In the final scenes Yuen provides Li with particularly exquisite choreography that showcases the almost supernatural grace that is unique to Li’s personal movement dynamic. At this point of the movie Jun Bao’s integrity and superior understanding of martial arts principles allows him to prevail over the morally lost Tian Bao.
“Junbao triumphs not only because he has superior technique, but because he is the most enlightened person – the two qualities are inextricable.” David West, Chasing Dragons, p. 190
Appropriately, Jet Li is allowed to look like a bit of a star at this stage of the movie. But Chin Siu Ho’s red-blooded performance of Tian Bao persists right until his dying gasp, and continues to inject dynamism into the film. Thus the partnership of Chin and Li in bringing the story of the twin warriors to life remains a vital one right to the end of Tai Chi Master, and is one of the elements that make this film such a satisfying one to watch.
*For the record, I got this autobiographical information from Bey Logan’s commentary to the film and Chin’s own interview on the Special Features of the Tai Chi Master DVD.
**His dramatic performance in Fist of Legend is, for me, some of the best screen acting I have ever seen. He does some great martial arts in this film as well.
The next blog I will publish is about the choreography in this film.